Questions have repeatedly been raised, since the time of the Calvin Reformation, whether or not the truth of particular atonement or limited redemption belongs to true Calvinism; whether Calvin himself actually taught this truth; and whether the true line of Calvin’s teachings is to be traced through those who held to this doctrine. There are so-called Four Point Calvinists today who maintain all the well-known five points except the doctrine of particular atonement. And there have been those throughout post-Reformation times who have taught, in one form or another, a universal atonement.
Among the latter are to be found the Amyraldians and the Marrow men, both of whom claimed to be followers of the teachings of Calvin, but both of whom taught also a universal atonement in some sense of the word. It is the purpose of this article to explain briefly the teachings of these two groups on the question of the extent of the atonement.
Before we take a close look at the views of these schools of thought, it would be worth our while to notice that in both instances a certain universality of the atonement was taught, especially in connection withthe free offer of the gospel. We do not have the space in this short article to trace the relation between these two views in detail, but it is worth pointing out that it was really the question of the free offer in both instances which prompted the men of these two schools to teach certain universal aspects of the atonement. This is striking and significant because it relates the issues of these two schools to more contemporary thought in both Presbyterian and Reformed circles and relates these issues to the issues which stand at the basis of our own existence as Protestant Reformed Churches. The free offer of the gospel was an issue in the “common grace” controversy in 1924 which led to the beginning of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and, while the question of the extent of the atonement was not an immediate issue in 1924, it did become an issue in the history of the Christian Reformed Church in the 1960s. It became an issue because, holding to the free offer, the Christian Reformed Church could not escape the question of the extent of the atonement. In the ’60s the CRC in fact put its stamp of approval on the doctrine of a certain universality of the atonement.
With these preliminary remarks, we turn to a discussion of these two individual schools of thought.
Moise Amyraut (1596-1664) was the founder of the Amyraldian School of thought. It is evident from his dates that he was a contemporary of the Synod of Dordt, and it is evident from the date of his major treatise, “Treatise on Predestination” (1634) that he wrote with the teaching of the Synod of Dordt in mind.
His teacher, John Cameron, who taught in the school of Saumur in France, was convinced that Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in the Academy in Geneva, was in large measure responsible for the shift to scholastic theology which characterized Protestant thought everywhere but in France. He claimed therefore that he was interested in recapturing Calvin’s true thought and restoring Calvinism to its pristine purity. Interestingly enough, he developed his ideas on the basis of a covenant conception according to which he taught that God had established a two-fold covenant: an absolute covenant which was unconditional and which was rooted in antecedent love, and a hypothetical covenant which was dependent upon man’s condition of love. This latter covenant was the only important one because it was the covenant of revelation and of our experience.
Following this line, Amyraut taught that the hypothetical covenant embraced all mankind as one of the contracting parties. The promise of the covenant was eternal life, but this promise was dependent for its fulfillment upon the condition of faith.
In connection with this view of the covenant, according to Amyraut, stood the decree of predestination, a decree which involved a twofold will of God: a particular and unconditional will of God to save only the elect, and a universal and conditional will of God to save all men. These two wills of God are irreconcilable and are part of the hidden mystery which we may not presume to try to understand. Once again it is this latter will of God with which we have to do because it is a part of God’s providence, a part of what is really “new counsels” of God which He made because of the fall. It is according to this will that God desires the salvation of all men.
He makes this clear in his “Treatise on Predestination.”
These words, “God wills the salvation of all men,” necessarily meet with this limitation, “provided that they believe.” If they do not believe, He does not will it, this will of making the grace of salvation universal and common to all men being in such a way conditional that without the accomplishment of the conditional it is completely inefficacious.
God (so) wills all men to be saved, that He invites them to repent, that He extends His arms to them, that He goes before them and calls them with a lively voice.
As is true with everyone who desires to teach a universal desire of God to save all men, Amyraut also faced the question of the relation between this desire to save all and the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. How can God desire to save all unless in some sense He sent Christ to save all? To answer this objection, Amyraut taught that the atonement is universal in intention and scope. That is, the atonement is not only sufficient for all, its intention is also to save all upon condition of faith, and its scope embraces all—once again, upon condition of faith. The grace merited by the cross was a grace which was objectively for all, but was subjectively given only on condition of faith.
Closely connected to this stands Amyraut’s conception of the free offer of the gospel. God’s universal will to save all is expressed in the gospel as an offer. The external call speaks of a sufficiency of salvation for all and of an objective grace for all which will be subjectively applied only upon condition of faith.
In his defense before the Synod of Alencon, which Synod tried him for heresy and exonerated him, he said:
So that those who are called by the preaching of the Gospel to participate by faith in the effects and fruits of His death, being invited seriously, and God vouchsafing them all external means needful for their coming to Him, and showing them in good earnest, and with the greatest sincerity by His Word, what would be well-pleasing to Him; if they should not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, but perish in their obstinacy and unbelief; this cometh not from any defect of virtue or sufficiency in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, nor yet for want of summons or serious invitations unto faith and repentance, but only from their own fault.
In his discussion of the atonement, F. Turretin says, with reference to the teachings of Amyraut:
Some of our ministers teach “that by Christ’s atonement a new covenant was established with all, their salvation rendered possible, and an offer made to them in the Gospel.” (The quote is from the writings of Testardus, a disciple of Amyraut.)
Turretin further quotes Amyraut as saying:
Since the misery of the human family is equal and universal, and the desire which God has to free them from it by a Redeemer, proceeds from the mercy which he exercises towards us as His creatures fallen into destruction, in which we are all equal; the grace of redemption, which He has procured for us and offers to us should be equal and universal, provided we are equally disposed to its reception. (Underscoring mine, HH.)
Thus objective grace and an offer of pardon to all was earned on the cross by a universal atonement. The reception of such grace was dependent upon the condition of faith.
Amyraut was the first to set forth clearly the idea of an offer of salvation and root that offer in the universal sacrifice of Jesus Christ—even though he limited that universality to intent and scope.
It is difficult to understand the Marrow controversy unless one understands also that there was a history of Arminianism present in the Churches of England almost from the beginning of the Reformation. Arminianism appeared already in England in the latter part of the sixteenth century and was the occasion for the Lambeth Articles which were added to the “Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England,” the official Creed of the Anglican Church.
Davenant, who was present at the Synod of Dordt as a delegate from England and whose party was represented at the Westminster Assembly, was basically an Amyraldian. In his efforts to find some sort of ‘middle way between Arminianism and Supralapsarianism, he too held to a hypothetical universalism, a general atonement in the sense of sufficiency and intent, a common blessing of the cross for all, and a conditional salvation.
While his views were never adopted by the Westminster divines nor by the church of his day either in England or in Scotland, nevertheless there were always those who maintained them more or less, and the thought which Davenant represented continued to live within the church. It was this which gave rise to the so-called Marrow controversy.
As a sidelight to this whole matter, it is interesting to note that Richard Baxter was a close follower of Davenant and wrote in support of an Amyraldian position. He was answered in an important book written by John Owen and entitled, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” This book is a complete and excellent refutation of every attempt to make the atonement universal in every sense of the word. J.I. Packer is correct when, in his introduction to the 1959 edition of John Owen’s book, he remarks that the arguments of the book have not to this day been answered.
The “Marrow Controversy” arose in connection with the treatment of the so-called Auchterarder Creed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. We cannot go into the details of this history in this article, but it was during the discussion of this “Creed” on the floor of the Assembly that Thomas Boston whispered to James Hog that he had read a book which spoke to the very issues being discussed. The title of this book was, “The Marrow of Modern Divinity,” a book published earlier by Edward Fisher.
The result was that James Hog became responsible for the republication of this book which was widely circulated in the churches. This book came to the attention of the General Assembly in 1720 and was condemned by that Assembly. Among other things, the book was condemned for teaching that an unlimited offer of Christ to all men in the gospel and a warrant to each one who hears the gospel to receive Christ necessarily implies a universal atonement.
Twelve men, among whom were Thomas Boston, James Hog, and the Erskine brothers, protested this decision to the General Assembly Meeting of 1721. Their protest was rejected and the General Assembly retained its earlier decision, although nothing in the way of disciplinary action was taken against the twelve “Marrow men.”
What was it that the Marrow men taught?
It is important to understand that the Marrow men wanted to establish in the preaching what they called, “the warrant of faith.” By this they meant that all men who heard the preaching had the right to believe and accept Christ as their Savior. They wanted the preaching to press home upon everyone who heard that he had no reason not to believe in Christ; that, indeed, he had every right to receive Christ and participate in all the blessings of salvation. They wanted to press this home upon the sinner by assuring him that Christ had indeed died for him, that salvation was his upon condition of faith, and that nothing stood in the way of his coming to Christ.
In order to implement this conception of the gospel, they spoke repeatedly of the free offer of the gospel which came to all who hear, an offer which expressed God’s desire and willingness to save them if they should come to Christ.
It is true that the Marrow men insisted that one could come to Christ only by a work of grace, that all who came to Christ were those only whom God had elected from all eternity, and that, therefore, the work of salvation belonged to God. But, as has been true of all those who have maintained an offer of the gospel, they fell into a double-track theology which taught on the one hand an eternal and unchangeable purpose in God to save only His elect, and, on the other hand, an intention and purpose of God to save all who hear the gospel. As Guthrie expresses it:
That though none cordially close with God in Christ Jesus, and acquiesces in that ransom found out by God, except only such as are elected, and whose heart the Lord doth sovereignly determine to that blessed choice, yet the Lord has left it as a duty upon people who hear His Gospel to close with His offer of salvation, as if it were in their power to do it.
In defense of this position the Marrow men had, of course, something to say about the atonement. The Marrow men agreed with the orthodox that the actual application of the blessings of the atonement was for the elect only. But they argued that the offer of the gospel could be made to all who heard because the atonement was sufficient for all, because the atonement of Christ removed all legal obstacles to salvation, because it was offered and was freely available to all on condition of faith, and because there are blessings for all in the atonement.
In order to defend this position, they spoke of a double reference of the atonement. The atonement had a designed general reference to all sinners of mankind as such. Christ did not die for all so as to save all; but He is dead for all, i.e., He is available for all if they will receive Him. Notice the distinction here which the Marrow men often made between “Christ died for all” and “Christ is dead for all.” The former they repudiated; the latter they taught. And by the latter they meant exactly that Christ is available for all if they will receive him by fulfilling the condition of faith.
Hence, so they taught, God, out of general philanthropy for all sinners, made a deed of the gift of Christ and of the benefits of His redemption to all indifferently to be claimed upon the condition of faith. This love is His “giving love,'” to be distinguished from His “electing love.”
The “deed of gift” or “grant of Christ” is not itself the general offer, but is the foundation upon which the general offer rests. This grant is real, universal, an expression of love, conditioned by faith, the warrant upon which the faith of every believer rests and by which faith he is justified.
And so we see that in the interests of maintaining a general offer, the Marrow men fell into the error of teaching an atonement which in some important respects was universal. In this way they departed from the teachings of Calvin, Beza, the Westminster Assembly, and the Synod of Dordt. In fact, although their views surely have gained the day in Presbyterian circles, these same views were condemned by their own General Assembly, which condemnation has never been undone by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
What are the lessons to be learned from all this?
In the first place, it is important to understand that wrong views of the extent of the atonement have, in the history of the church, always been closely associated with a defense of the free offer of the gospel. This ought to give us pause. As widespread as is the teaching of the free offer in our day, the fact remains that historically the whole teaching of the free offer has led to a denial of the particularity of the atonement.
The reason for this is not difficult to see. If God expresses in the preaching of the gospel His desire to save all men, and if indeed God is sincere in this expression, then it follows inescapably that such salvation is, in some sense of the word, available to all men. And if salvation comes only through the cross of Jesus Christ, then that cross had to merit salvation for all who are confronted with the gospel offer. History has proved that the two go hand in hand.
In the second place, those who have taught both the free offer of the gospel and a general atonement of Christ have, until the nineteenth century, stood outside the line of true Calvinism. These heresies have not been taught in Calvin or Beza, by Westminster or Dordt, nor by those who have been faithful to this heritage. They have come from outside: from Arminianism, Amyraldianism, Davenantianism, the Marrow men, and such like deviators from the faith. In fact, until the nineteenth century the church has consistently condemned these views as being contrary to Scripture and the Calvinism which rests so firmly on the Bible.
How these views finally gained the day within both Reformed and Presbyterian circles is another story which we cannot relate here. But let it be underscored that the line of true Calvinism rests not in the line of Arminius, Amyrald, Davenant, Boston, etc., but rests in the line of Calvin, Beza, Dordt, Westminster and the Reformed faith.
And so we may conclude that our defense of the truth of a limited atonement and our apology for the truth of sovereign grace against the free offer is a defense of the truth as it was confessed by the church throughout the Post-Reformation times.